Don't Call It Nothing Episode 11 now live! We're diving into 1997 with The Neckbones, Geraldine Fibbers, and Muffs, with special love sent out into the universe for the late, great Kim Shattuck.Support the show
Theme Song: Mike Nicolai, “Trying To Get It Right” [Bandcamp]
Welcome to Don't Call It Nothing, the podcast dedicated to the lost history of '90s roots, rap, and rock 'n' roll. I’m your host Lance Davis and before we dive into 1997 I’d like to mention up front that if you want to support the punk rock musicology I do here you can do so at the $5 and $20/month levels. Click on that fancypants “Buy Me a Coffee” button at the top of the page and you just try and stop the magic from happening. Don’t think of it like you’re just giving the strange voice in your ear money. Think of it like you’re investing in your own happiness. Do it for you.
Also, I probably should’ve noted this earlier, but I transcribe every podcast on the blog that goes along with this show, dontcallitnothing.squarespace.com. However, it’s not a straight one-to-one transcription. I’ll occasionally drop in extra videos or alternate videos on the blog that might not necessarily get played on the podcast. I’m thinking about the first alt.country pod where I mentioned Caitlin Cary singing “Matrimony” on Whiskeytown’s Faithless Street. I didn’t include that in the pod, but if you go to the transcription page I added the video. Or, when I played “All The Labor” by The Gourds on last week’s podcast, the blog included a live performance from 1997. I just wanted to give y’all a heads up on this stuff. Think of it like DVD extras.
OK, I don’t know what you guys were doing in 1997, but I was keeping it real. So … get on your fedoras, we’re going swing dancing! HEYO!!! Who’s with me? Babies? No? You know what, that’s fine. I’m sure I can get my deposit back on this fedora. Besides, why have hamburger when you can have steak? Let me just cue up Smash Mouth’s reboot of Springsteen’s ill-fated homage to Desmond Dekker, nebraSKA. “State trooper, you’re an all star, pickitup pickitup in a cop car.” Huh??? I know we got some Smashing Mouthkins here tonight. By the way, the greatest headline in American journalism history? The August 28, 2016, edition of Consequence of Sound, which declared, "Smash Mouth singer 'was too drunk or had a heart attack,' carried off-stage at Sweetcorn Festival. Sub-heading: Another embarrassing on-stage moment for music's resident Guy Fieri doppelgänger.” Yep. Welcome to America. Here’s your Ed Hardy shirt, off-brand whiskey, and used copy of Fush Yu Mang. All right friends. Fuck around time is over. I know why you do what you do. It’s the “Crack Whore Blues.”
From the 1997 masterpiece, Souls On Fire, that’s Oxford, Mississippi’s Neckbones with the best rock 'n' roll song
Oh Neckbones, is there anything you can’t do??? Singing lead on “Crack Whore Blues” is Tyler Keith, who also wrote the song, and he, fellow guitarist Dave Boyer, and bassist Robbie Alexander collectively throw down one of the thickest, swinginest riffs you’re ever gonna hear and drummer Forrest Hewes keeps the band in front of him driving them forward. I love how Keith and Boyer are set off in each channel and doing that Stones thing where both guitarists play rhythm and lead simultaneously, weaving around each other and that main riff. In fact, it’s the Stones via Johnny Thunders & The Heartbreakers, but without all the stupid junkie posturing.
Quick Thunders sidebar and it actually pertains to the ‘90s. If you consider yourself well-versed in rock ‘n’ roll, at some point you have to reckon with L.A.M.F. Originally released in 1977 by The Heartbreakers – not yet Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers – L.A.M.F., which stands for “like a motherfucker,” is textbook rock ‘n’ roll. Short songs attacked inside a violent pocket. The problem is so many different versions of the album have been released, it’s hard to know which is definitive. I’m here to help you. The one you want is the Lost '77 Mixes, released by Jungle Records on a single disc in 1994. I mention this specific version because you can get a 2-disc, 3-disc, and even 4-disc version of L.A.M.F., but fuck all that. You don’t need to see how the sausage is made. Stick with the single disc version from ’94. It’s Thunders at his most focused.
And that brings us back to the Neckbones. They took those Thunderisms, especially a love of '50s R&B and ‘60s girl group, and married it to a muscular, bottom-up, rhythm-centric brand of punk rock, like the MC5 divided by Rocket From The Crypt. This even extends to some occasional Grifters or Fugazi-esque dissonance. It’s not that Keith and Boyer wouldn’t take solos, but they were far more likely to use their guitars like horns in an arrangement than they were to be shred bros. What made The Neckbones triply unique is they had three different singers and songwriters in Keith, Boyer, and drummer Hewes. Three distinct voices, all solid writers, and weirdly cohesive. Which is why Souls On Fire is the greatest southern punk album ever. And by punk, of course I mean high energy rock 'n' roll.
That’s Dave Boyer and The Neckbones with “Can’t Drive You,” the most formally ambitious track on Souls On Fire. It starts out like a Fugazi homage with those feedbacky guitars, the chord progression, the busy countermelody bassline, and drum fills ... very Repeater. Not sure if it's Keith or Boyer – I suspect Keith – but the guitar solo from 2:04-2:33 is probably the album's most daring moment and the slow descent into madness that is the final minute and a half is cacophony at its most liberating.
I have a quote from drummer Forrest Hewes that puts the album in context. The band members were interviewed by Newt Rayburn in 2007 for their first proper reunion since the band went on hiatus in 2000. When Rayburn asked about the making of Souls On Fire Hewes said:
"Most bands get a budget to work with on an album like this. I think Fat Possum [Records, their label] sprung for a gallon of Jack Daniels and a few family packs of pork chops and chicken for the grill. We couldn't believe our fortunes. We had a week to do it and it was a fun experience. I have no strong recollections other than enjoying it."
–Forrest Hewes to Newt Rayburn, The Local Voice #31, June 28-July 12, 2007
JD and pork chops? In your face, Radiohead!!! This whole album is full of whiskey drinking, fistpumping, couch burning anthems, the soundtrack to falling in and out of love and working your ass off to find your place in the world. Hewes is gonna take us from DC to east LA for our final Neckbones track, a romantic slice of angst that’s like punk rock Rosie And The Originals. Love the drunk guitar in the final 30 seconds as Keith (who’s on piano) jumps in on vocal to snarl the song’s title, "You shouldn't call your man a fool!"
That’s Forrest Hewes and The Neckbones with “Shouldn’t Call Your Man A Fool.” Now, why highlight The Neckbones, other than the fact they’re badass motherfuckers? Because they’re representative of the kind of ‘90s band that’s been ignored as boomer rock critics specifically, but middle class America more generally – including many, many Gen Xers – robotically fawn over dull nonsense like Bob Dylan, Time Out Of Mind, Radiohead, OK Computer, Björk, Homogenic, Portishead's self-titled, Rolling Stones, Bridges To Babylon, Chemical Brothers, Dig Your Own Hole, and U2, Pop. All of those albums were released in ’97 and received a metric fuckton of coverage, some of it was even critical. The problem is that those albums are purely intellectual pursuits. No one actually feels those albums in their soul, they just say they do because we live in a culture that rewards performative white bullshit. Souls On Fire ain’t gonna suck your dick for airplay or favorable press. It’s gonna kick your ass and you’re gonna like it.
I wrote the book upon which this podcast is based because the best American rock ‘n’ roll of the 1990s has largely been overlooked and it didn’t seem to bother anyone except me and the bands being ignored [laughs]. I mean, if you didn’t know about The Neckbones in 1997, there’s no shame in that. Neither did I. But, I damn sure found out about them in 1998 and have been preachin the blues ever since. Shout out to George Hadjidakis and Chuck Thompson at Vinyl Solution in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. I have a great quote from Carla Bozulich of The Geraldine Fibbers. She was interviewed in ‘97 regarding the band’s then-new album, Butch, and she said something that I feel in every fiber of my being. She said:
“Punk rock never caught on because radio couldn’t deal with the anti-establishment part. They took it personally and never gave punk any airplay. And now, basically, it’s turned into generation after generation ignoring the underground.”
— Carla Bozulich to Arts Weekly, July 30, 1997
It’s amazing, isn’t? Whether we’re discussing punk rock or the music industry or capitalism or American democracy it won’t be long before we discover the weak link in the human genome: white dudes needing to control shit and failing miserably.
The Geraldine Fibbers with “California Tuffy.” I love that the band is not concerned with your comfort, from their explosive arrangements to their unwillingness to fit inside a tidy genre box to their brutally honest content. This record tackles sexual abuse, misogyny, incest, and gender and sexual identity, and the music reflects this dark tone. Lead singer, guitarist, and principal songwriter Carla Bozulich can switch from croon to scream at the drop of a hat, but her abiding asset is her vocal control and intensity. Filling out the band is Nels Cline on divebomb electric guitar, lap steel, and slide guitar, the lovely Jessy Greene on violin, viola, and backup vocals, and deep in the engine room, Bill Tutton on bass and Kevin Fitzgerald on drums. Given the album's violent arcs, it took a very sympathetic rhythm section to power the Geraldine medicine show.
The versatility of the band is perfectly repped on "California Tuffy," which adds a measure of early '60s AM radio feel to the artsy twang punk. There's a reason this track was chosen for the album's first single and only video (directed by Bozulich). "Toybox" follows “Tuffy” and it's pure assault rock. Bozulich screams, Cline ping-pongs guitar fire, and Fitzgerald's drums power the band to the song's dramatic conclusion. "Trashman In Furs" is a song about grief and death that rockets through space on the back of Greene's sad violin and Cline's stuttering guitar histrionics. And "Pet Angel" is a folkie waltz with Tutton's bowing double bass essentially harmonizing with Greene's viola. But, the track I wanna feature next is alt.country in its purest form.
That’s The Geraldine Fibbers with "Folks Like Me," a wonderful country two-stepper with Nels Cline on keening lap steel and Jessy Greene on violin countermelody. In a different 1997 interview from the one I quoted above, Bozulich discusses the album title. She says,
"The recurrent thread through the album is gender issues and ambiguity, as far as sexual orientation. I wanted to name the album Butch because it's a very homo-specific word. It just means so much to me, that word. It's a state of mind, really. It's usually used in reference to a woman, but it doesn't have to be. What else can I say? It's for the butch inside us all. It was an alternative to the title Bitch."
–Carla Bozulich to Curve Magazine, September 1997
Given the album title Butch, it’s interesting to consider the song title, “Folks Like Me.” If this were mainstream country, the “folks” in folks like me would drive pickup trucks, like little pups, and think about mama on the front porch. [mock crying] Would you be proud of me, mama??? The genius of Carla Bozulich – and it is genius, let’s be clear – is she takes this formulaic songwriting device, but recontextualizes it into a queer, feminist space. When Carla sings, “I told you from the start that I was not what I appeared,” it introduces the central conflict in not only the song, but in the interior lives of so many in the LGBTQ community. It’s not that your politics flies in the face of the sexually repressed white middle class, it’s that you’re ENTIRE FUCKING EXISTENCE makes them uncomfortable. What’s the chorus of “Folks Like Me?”
“But I'm goin' back to the place
Back to my own race
You won't have to live life on the run
I'm goin' back to the place where
Folks like me are from”
The part of alt.country that the boomer gatekeepers completely misunderstood – because they’re a mostly uniform army of boring white dudes who refuse to acknowledge any context that doesn’t put them at the center – is sometimes the alt meant gay or lesbian. [mocking] SCARY!!! These guys can barely acknowledge women as equals, forget about challenging heteronormativity [laughs]. Yeah, that didn’t happen. And rock radio, as Bozulich already noted, wasn’t interested, despite the fact that, as with Souls On Fire, there’s no way I hear Butch and think, “Oh sure, there’s 15-20 albums better than this.” A few? Maybe. Several? Nah. The last thing the music industry wanted in 1997 was a woman who, get this, expressed her own opinions! What madness is this? “Young lady, does your husband know you’re here???”
FYI, the version of “Crush Me” on the podcast is from Emo’s in Austin on July 23, 2000. Sorry for not back announcing that.
“While I was recording the rhythm guitars with the amazing engineer Sally ‘Make It Louder’ Browder, we decided we needed another guitar to stereo split with the one I just did. But I didn’t want to do another one because I didn’t want to agonize over whether or not it was locked in. It was decided that this was going to be the opening track and because of that, I was already being way too precious with it. So Sally, as usual, had an innovative idea. For that second guitar she put a microphone up to the noisy air conditioning register and EQ’ed it so it sounded brittle and hissy. When the moment in the song came where the second guitar would come in, I turned on the A/C and we let it roll to the end of the song. It was just noise from the A/C. No guitar playing necessary. Perfect!”
— Kim Shattuck in the Happy Birthday reissue liner notes, September 2016
FYI, Sally Browder is an engineer and producer based here in SoCal and she was an integral part of the scene at the time, another mostly unheralded woman doing solid work in a male-dominated field. You see her name in the credits for a lot of essential ‘90s acts like Rocket From The Crypt, Wayne Kramer, Claw Hammer, and The Humpers. In 1997, Browder not only engineered Happy Birthday To Me for The Muffs, she mixed Butch for the Fibbers. That list of bands is interesting, too, because it represents a few different healthy mid-‘90s SoCal scenes. Wayne Kramer is kind of a wild card in that I think he lived in Hollywood in the ‘90s and he was signed to Epitaph, who were based in Hollywood, but I’m not sure I’d associate him with Hollywood. So setting him aside, you have the Fibbers based in Silver Lake. That’s one scene. Rocket from San Diego and The Casbah nightclub. You have Claw Hammer and The Humpers from Long Beach and I always associate them with the Foothill Club in Signal Hill. And finally, The Muffs are from north Orange County, the Fullerton/Orange area where there was a great club back then called Linda’s Doll Hut (in Anaheim). I don’t know if I’d associate The Muffs with that (club) specifically, but (Linda’s) was part of that scene.
Anyway, for years the self-titled debut and Blonder And Blonder were my go-to Muffs. But, the more I listened to Happy Birthday, the more I realized it's the band's masterpiece. Superficially, it doesn't sound that much different than their other records. They still exist in that nexus of '60s Britpop and punk, with Kim Shattuck's brilliant songwriting evoking heartbreak and fuck you in equal measure, punctuated with the greatest scream in rock 'n' roll history. One difference was in the drums. As much as I love Blonder, that album was recorded just after drummer Roy McDonald joined the band. By the time they recorded Birthday, though, he'd played hundreds of shows with Kim and bassist Ronnie Barnett and the power trio was a well-oiled machine. I think Roy is the best part of three very good songs – “That Awful Man,” “I’m A Dick,” and “Nothing” – and his presence on “Outer Space” is the best of all possible worlds. It’s flawless melodic rock, but McDonald’s pocket drumming, subtle accents, and heavy rolls and fills give the song an immense depth.
That’s The Muffs with “Outer Space” from The Mr. Vegas All-Night Party Starring Drew Carey recorded June 28, 1997. The other factor that makes Happy Birthday #1 in the Muffography is the fact that Kim Shattuck took over production duties and her control of the band's sound is subtle, but key.
In those same liner notes, Kim admits:
“Happy Birthday To Me was what propelled me into producing and that is a big deal to me. The fact that I was encouraged to give the production credit to the whole band, and not to me individually, was sexist and it stunk. And later I was happy we were going to be dropped because they didn’t understand us and not being understood bummed me out more than being dropped.”
— Kim Shattuck in the Happy Birthday reissue liner notes, September 2016
I'll never stop being annoyed that Reprise was fully bought into Green Day, bought them constant rotation on MTV and radio, but somehow they just didn’t know what to do with The Muffs. Kim Shattuck was beautiful, smart, and funny, she wrote ridiculously catchy pop punk songs, and the band was a tight power trio. And yet, Reprise was all, [mock confusion] “How in the world am I supposed to market this confounding music?!?!?” One of the great indignities of the decade was Reprise informing The Muffs they'd be dropping the band just as Birthday was released, robbing “Outer Space” of the chance to make them millions. Ahh who am I kidding? Reprise, MTV, and/or commercial radio would’ve fucked it up. In the 1990s, the music industry itself was the most visible and obvious impediment to a healthy, economically sustainable rock culture.
Drummer Roy McDonald also wrote a little piece for those Birthday liner notes and it speaks to the character of the band in the wake of getting dumped. He says,
“Most bands would’ve packed it in at this juncture. Many did. That was never a consideration for us. We knew we had something special. We weren’t about to walk away from it. We continue to make records and play all over the world. I think, in many ways, Happy Birthday To Me played a huge part in cementing us as a band. Some of our other records have gotten more attention, but this is the one that defines us.”
–Roy McDonald in the Happy Birthday reissue liner notes, September 2016
Sadly, only three years after Roy wrote that, Kim Shattuck passed away due to complications from ALS. In fact, they did an in-store at Freakbeat Records in Sherman Oaks on March 19, 2017. It was right after Birthday was reissued. That was the last time I saw the band. She was diagnosed with ALS that October and her decline was fairly quick and precipitous. Let me just say that David Bowie deservedly earns praise for releasing Blackstar two days before his death from liver cancer in January 2016. The album was considered a parting gift to his fans as it was constructed when he was in failing health. Well, Kim topped that. You need to hear this.
All of the quotes I’m going to read here in a sec come from Lyndsey Parker’s wonderful tribute on Yahoo, “How late Muffs frontwoman Kim Shattuck made final album while secretly battling ALS,” published 17 days after Shattuck’s death.
Parker says that by December 2017 – only nine months after I saw the band at Freakbeat – Kim was having trouble walking and talking. So, that month The Muffs started recording their final album, No Holiday, with Karen Basset of The Pandoras engineering. As for guitar, Shattuck could’ve asked almost anybody to take her place because she couldn’t move her hands. And yet she chose Adam Schary, a friend of hers with no recording credits. That’s fascinating because it tells me that he had the most important quality for this specific project: Kim trusted him.
OK, here's the extended quotes from Parker's article only slightly edited to make it easier for you.
“Her attitude was unbelievable,” marvels guitarist Schary, a friend of Shattuck’s who was recruited for No Holiday once Shattuck became unable to play guitar herself. “I couldn't even really understand how she was just like, ‘We're making a record. We're finishing it. That's it. Disease be damned.’ She never once felt sorry for herself. She just told me, ‘OK, you need to be my hands because my hands are not working.’ And I was like, ‘I'll be there. You just tell me what to do and I'll do it as best as I can.’”
The basis for the album were Shattuck’s unfinished recordings, many consisting of just her and an acoustic guitar. Says Schary, “She had all these songs that were demos or some songs that didn't make the last record and then some of them were literally recorded on an iPhone. Some of them were just recorded on a computer. Nothing really new could be recorded in terms of singing because she couldn't sing anymore.”
Ronnie admits, “There’s some songs that that are recorded better than others. Like, when you have Kim recording her vocal and acoustic guitar track on an iPhone, you can't separate those tracks in a normal recording situation, so there are a couple tracks where we had trouble getting the vocal loud. I’d compare it to Mag Earwhig! by Guided By Voices, where you have polished songs next to more lo-fi stuff, but it all fits together.” Schary adds, “It shows how good of a songwriter and how talented she was. The songs were so good, it didn't matter that it was recorded in her bedroom on an iPhone. It made no difference.”
By spring 2018, Shattuck was completely immobile and the band set up in the study room of her house while she remotely supervised the sessions from her chair in the adjacent living room. According to Ronnie, “She communicated to us from the other room using the Viber app. By that time, she had gotten a machine called a Tobii that would read her eyeballs, so she was able to construct sentences and communicate using that machine. So she oversaw all of it. She'd be like, ‘It's a little flat there.’ Or, ‘Do it again.’ That's how we did it.”
Schary adds, “She didn't compromise on anything. She was the same sort of meticulous, crazy-talented musician as she ever was. We would run a long headphones cable to Kim and we set up an Apple TV so she could see the computer screen. We'd basically be texting her from the other room, and she would say something like, ‘That's good,’ or ‘No, try this." It was a very slow process, but she knew exactly what she wanted. I think most people would just be so frustrated. She acted like this was normal. She literally couldn't move, but her ears were so good I'd record a part and then get a text saying, ‘You're a bit out of tune.’ There she is, in the other room, and she can't move, and she’s telling me I'm a little flat. Crazy.”
Friends, I’m definitely happier just being with you, especially if you subscribe to this podcast. Also become a member at the $5 or $20/month level by hitting that Buy Me a Coffee button at the top of the page. I mean, you don’t have to, but it’d be cooler if you did. Please visit the Don’t Call It Nothing Facebook page and website, dontcallitnothing.squarespace.com. Like, comment, tell yo mama, and tell a friend.
Talk to ya next time when we explore 1998!